Peng Shuai: Beijing in for more pain over missing tennis star’s fate

Peng Shuai: Beijing in for more pain over missing tennis star’s fate
Peng Shuai of China during her first-round match against Japan's Nao Hibino at the Australian Open in Melbourne on 21 January 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Francis Malasig)

Two women, one in South Africa and one in China, are at the centre of discussions about possible boycotts. One, South African beauty queen Lalela Mswane, is being pressed to skip a beauty pageant in Israel. The other is Chinese tennis pro Peng Shuai, who accused a senior government figure of rape and whose circumstances are provoking growing international consternation.

A few weeks ago, the only international boycott debate seemed to be whether South African beauty queen Lalela Mswane should go to Eilat, Israel, next month to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. This competition is the younger (and slightly less “prestigious”) of the two global beauty contests — the other being Miss World, which is scheduled to take place in Puerto Rico. 

Of course, for many, debate over participation in any Miss Universe competition should pale before acknowledgement that such competitions are a holdover from the archaic, sexist attitudes of the past, even if they were ostensibly supposed to be a bringing together of talent, poise and feminine beauty in a swimsuit. The latter measure roots it in a standard of beauty increasingly in conflict with the sensibilities of our age. 

In response to such thoughts, and in an effort to put a more contemporary face to their pageant, the organisers of the grandmother of all such pageants — the Miss America competition — did away with the swimsuit parade a few years back; but, realistically, the competition really remains what it was for most viewers. (Hollywood’s take on this whole business is, of course, the modern, classic comedy, “Miss Congeniality”.

But quite unexpectedly, the global discussion about boycotts is no longer just the one about Miss South Africa and her participation as a contestant for the Miss Universe title in Eilat, Israel. Instead, the new question is whether the advocacy of another kind of boycott may be about to focus on China, and the timing may be very awkward for the Chinese government. 

Before turning to China and Peng Shuai’s circumstances, contemplate Lalela Mswane’s situation for a moment. For years, the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions movement (now Africa4Palestine) has tried to mobilise opposition to Israel’s continuing presence on the West Bank and its restrictions on the territory’s restive Palestinian population.

Perhaps the most effective effort by A4P, at least as far as South Africans are concerned, has been to hang the label “Apartheid Israel” on to that nation, despite real differences between the circumstances of South Africa’s apartheid regime and circumstances in Israel proper — or even in the West Bank. Nevertheless, for many South Africans, and for obvious reasons, that charge has real and painful resonances. 

Miss South Africa, 24-year old Lalela Mswane, a University of Pretoria law graduate, model, and daughter of a diplomat, was set to go to Israel with young women from around the world to appear before a global television audience of up to half a billion people, as they compete for the tiara and the goodies that come along with the title. But with South African participation in a pageant in Israel, A4P reckoned it could further mobilise support for its ongoing campaign to isolate Israel.

In the face of A4P’s public criticism, the South African government announced it was withdrawing support for participation in the pageant and that it would not issue Mswane with a diplomatic passport. A4P, meanwhile, sponsored a protest rally at the Miss South Africa offices in Sunninghill, Johannesburg. (Question: Has the South African government previously issued diplomatic passports for beauty pageant competitors and provided other tangible support, or was this just the South African government’s version of tossing some red meat to a crowd?) 

Regardless of its public statements and votes in international fora, South Africa maintains diplomatic relations, trade, and various cooperative ventures with Israel, even as its ambassadorial slot is vacant. 

So far, the Miss South Africa organisers appear unmoved about the idea of withdrawing Mswane from the pageant, and the contestant, clearly no naif about the challenges arising from public comment, has been quiet about the question in the face of the uproar swirling around her participation. Still, there remain the possibilities of further difficulties about her participation, and the possibility such controversy could negatively affect her circumstances once she returns home. Or maybe not.

In thinking about all this, it needs to be remembered beauty pageants are profit-making private enterprises, with their revenues derived from television broadcast fees and sponsorship payments in exchange for product placement or exposure. They are certainly not international ventures like humanitarian aid, just as they certainly are not government programmes either. Up to a point, any publicity feeds interest in their product.

But now, unexpectedly, competing for attention in newscasts and on the internet and social media has come along the not-so-modest matter of Chinese international tennis champion Peng Shaui’s accusation against a senior political figure of his sexual assault against her, as well as concerns about her current whereabouts, her freedom to speak and seek redress, and even her safety. In a message that appeared on China’s preeminent social media service on 2 November, Peng charged she had been raped by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of the Chinese government. 

Peng has admitted she previously had had an intimate relationship with him, but as we all should have learnt, “no” still means “no”, regardless of any previous connections between the individuals. Such an understanding is core to campaigns against global gender-based violence. 

Almost immediately after her social media message, she went invisible, inaudible, unreachable and incommunicado. It is important to recognise that as part of this saga, professional tennis has become really big business in China, with vast revenues being poured into it, including some enormous sponsorships and prize money lavished upon women’s tennis competitions. And Peng has been the country’s biggest star. Poking the Chinese dragon may be good for the soul for some, but may also become a giant hit against the bank accounts of international professional tennis.

Despite this possibility, an international outcry over Peng’s circumstances, including strong statements from a growing array of tennis stars, has been coalescing, and there are even discussions about divorcing professional tennis from its Chinese cash flow. 

The New York Times argued in an editorial: “The professional tennis world has reacted with admirable and unequivocal ferocity. Steve Simon, the executive director of the W.T.A., demanded an investigation into Ms. Peng’s allegations. He declared that he is ready to pull the tour out of China. The governing body of men’s tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals, joined in, with a statement declaring that it was ‘deeply concerned,’ and a chorus of tennis players, including Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, issued expressions of shock and concern. The United Nations called for an investigation with ‘full transparency,’ and the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the Biden administration calls for ‘verifiable proof’ of Ms. Peng’s whereabouts.” 

There is some high-stakes poker about to be played here for both tennis and other professional sports such as basketball, which has increasingly been buoyed by money from Chinese television and sponsors.  

Then, some days after Peng’s initial message, which had, by then, vanished from social media, the Chinese response emerged, including the inevitable statement that sports and politics should be kept separate. Then a second social media message appeared, ostensibly also from Peng, but this time effectively saying, “Oh no, it was all a mistake; there’s nothing to see here; just move along.” 

There is some high-stakes poker about to be played here for both tennis and other professional sports such as basketball, which has increasingly been buoyed by money from Chinese television and sponsors.

There are now also video clips and photos from Chinese official sources showing her at dinner with several other people, and at home with a pet and a large collection of fluffy stuffed animals. In all this, she seems to be wearing a tight smile that might be more in keeping with a hostage video made to prove the hostage was still alive. 

The head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, then spoke with her via virtual conferencing, demonstrating Peng indeed was still alive, but certainly not clarifying whether Message A or Message B was the truthful, accurate one, and garnering Bach criticism that he was tugging a forelock to the Chinese, as the Beijing Winter Olympics comes ever closer. Meanwhile, her alleged assailant has remained entirely quiet, with not a single peep from his invisible retirement.

What the confusing and conflicting narratives about Peng’s circumstances have done is to provoke discussion about the possibility of some kind of a diplomatic boycott at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing — or possibly even stronger responses. Readers may recall the Chinese summer Olympics in 2008 which were clearly designed — right along with its spectacular sports architecture — to deliver the message that China had truly arrived, large and in charge on the global stage, and that “the best was yet to be” for China’s future. 

This 2022 Winter Olympics was supposed to be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s moment to shine internationally, presiding over a gathering of thousands of foreigners before the massed international press and global television attention. Not incidentally, it would also blanket Chinese media at home as an adjunct of a messaging about Xi’s sagacious leadership, heading into the future. 

But now there is the possibility of some kind of ugly multinational snub — also broadcast live to the world — by the absence of presidents, prime ministers and miscellaneous royalty, and with only lower-ranking individuals such as resident diplomats as the honorary leaders of various teams in attendance. As yet, there is little real talk about actual national team boycotts, but, in the current climate, and if Peng’s personal circumstances continue as an unresolved public issue, the pressure on some nations to carry out team boycotts might conceivably strengthen into something more threatening to the self-esteem of Xi’s government. 

Moreover, the debate about Peng’s personal circumstances also seems to be giving impetus to discussions on two other smouldering international movements that are calling for a boycott of the Olympics in response to China’s continuing ill-treatment of the people of Tibet and Xinjiang. The Times went on to say in its editorial, “The notion of allowing a country that brutally represses critics and entire minorities [such as Uighurs and Tibetans] to again host the Olympics has already drawn sharp questioning. President Biden said Thursday that the United States was considering keeping American officials away from the Games, and Human Rights Watch asked the International Olympic Committee’s major corporate sponsors to explain how they intend to use their leverage to address human rights abuses in China.” 

If the three issues somehow coalesce and the combined result catches fire — the plight of the Tibetans, the Uighurs, plus the ugly face of gender violence — the result might well turn into a public relations nightmare, spoiling the years of effort by the Chinese government to create a perfectly choreographed Winter Olympics. 

Of course, South Africans, historically, have taken much less notice of the Winter Games than the summer ones, especially since the country’s contingent has a mere handful of skiers with South African citizenship but who train abroad in more suitable climates. But, for a number of nations, the Winter Games are the ones that actually matter the most, with their long-standing successes in wildly popular sports such as ice hockey, downhill skiing, ski-jumping and skating. Many of those nations also have very strong lobbies and popular movements active on human rights issues and in opposition to gender-based violence. 

On the embarrassment scale, in the very worst of circumstances, the confluence of the three issues and any international protests over them might even come to resemble in some way a Jesse Owens moment for China; an echo of Adolph Hitler’s Germany’s humiliation when a young African American runner bested the supposed “super race” by winning four gold medals in Berlin in 1936. Alternatively, of course, the Chinese ability to overwhelm these issues and then exult over a perfectly run Winter Games (subtly delivering signals to wavering nations that any protest, let alone absence, will not be taken kindly by the trade and aid lords in the Chinese government) may yet make the difference for them. 

Even so, so far at least, absent any convincing clarifications, the image of a solitary female tennis star claiming gender-based violence at the hands of a very powerful man, and the question of how athletes and nations will respond to her cry, lingers. Unlike the unknown man who stood in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, we do know Peng’s name and about what she claims happened to her. 

In contrast to the pressure on a young South African expected to participate in a beauty contest in Eilat — or not to attend it and what it might say about Israel — certain kinds of attention on these Beijing Olympics might even bring into a sharper focus the question of gender-based violence in China as well as globally (along with the circumstances of Tibet and Xinjiang), unless the Chinese government credibly makes Peng’s charges go away in a manner leaving no room for believing in her initial anguished statement. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Birgit Edmayr says:

    Both these ladies need to have and need to know they the support from all of us out there .

  • Sue van der Walt says:

    It is a matter of choice as to whether or not women want to participate in the event. It might be that they see the beauty pageant as a once in a lifetime opportunity to advance their careers internationally.

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